Friday, February 8, 2008

Microchip future not sci-fi

Technology already exists that could lead to the tracking of purchases and people. Critics fear a loss of privacy.
By Todd Lewan
The Associated Press
Article Last Updated: 01/27/2008 01:22:46 AM MST

Here's a vision of the not-so-distant future:

• Microchips with antennas will be embedded in virtually everything you buy, wear, drive and read, allowing retailers and law enforcement to track consumer items — and, by extension, consumers — wherever they go, from a distance.

• A seamless, global network of electronic "sniffers" will scan radio tags in myriad public settings, identifying people and their tastes instantly so that customized ads, "live spam," may be beamed at them.

• In "Smart Homes," sensors built into walls, floors and appliances will inventory possessions, record eating habits, monitor medicine cabinets — all the while reporting data to marketers eager for a peek into the occupants' private lives.

Science fiction? In truth, much of the radio frequency identification technology that enables objects and people to be tagged and tracked wirelessly already exists — and new and potentially intrusive uses of it are being patented, perfected and deployed.

Some of the world's largest corporations are vested in the success of RFID technology, which couples highly miniaturized computers with radio antennas to broadcast information about sales and buyers to company databases.

Already, microchips are turning up in some computer printers, car keys and tires, on shampoo bottles and department store clothing tags. They are also in library books and "contactless" payment cards (such as American Express' "Blue" and ExxonMobil's "Speedpass").

Companies say the RFID tags improve supply-chain efficiency, reduce theft and guarantee that brand-name products are authentic, not counterfeit. At a store, RFID doorways could scan your purchases automatically as you leave, eliminating tedious checkouts.

At home, convenience is a selling point: RFID-enabled refrigerators could warn about expired milk, generate weekly shopping lists, even send signals to your interactive TV so that you see "personalized" commercials for foods you have a history of buying.

Potential for abuse

"We've seen so many different uses of the technology," said Dan Mullen, president of AIM Global, a national association of data-collection businesses, including RFID, "and we're probably still just scratching the surface in terms of places RFID can be used."

The problem, critics say, is that products with microchips might do a whole lot more.

With tags in so many objects, relaying information to databases that can be linked to credit and bank cards, almost no aspect of life may soon be safe from prying eyes, says Mark Rasch, former head of the computer-crime unit of the U.S. Justice Department. He imagines a time when anyone from police to identity thieves might scan locked car trunks or home offices from a distance.

"Think of it as a high-tech form of Dumpster-diving," Rasch said.

Passive vs. active tags

Presently, the radio tag most commercialized in America is the so-called "passive" emitter, meaning it has no internal power supply. Only when a reader powers these tags with a squirt of electrons do they broadcast their signal, indiscriminately, within a range of a few inches to 20 feet.

Not as common, but increasing in use, are "active" tags, which have internal batteries and can transmit signals, continuously, as far as low-orbiting satellites. Active tags pay tolls as motorists zip through tollgates; they also track wildlife.

Retailers and manufacturers want passive tags to replace the bar code for tracking inventory. These radio tags transmit Electronic Product Codes, number strings that allow trillions of objects to be uniquely identified. Some transmit specifics about the item, such as price, though not the name of the buyer.

The recent growth of the RFID industry has been staggering: From 1955 to 2005, cumulative sales of radio tags totaled 2.4 billion. Last year alone, 2.24 billion tags were sold worldwide, and analysts project that by 2017 cumulative sales will top 1 trillion — generating more than $25 billion in annual revenues for the industry.

Privacy concerns, some RFID supporters say, are overblown. But industry documents suggest a different line of thinking, privacy experts say.

A 2005 patent application by American Express itself describes how RFID-embedded objects carried by shoppers could emit "identification signals" when queried by electronic "consumer trackers."

In 2006, IBM received patent approval for an invention it called "Identification and tracking of persons using RFID-tagged items."

The documents "raise the hair on the back of your neck," said Liz McIntyre, co-author of "Spychips," a book that is critical of the industry. "The industry has long promised it would never use this technology to track people. But these patent records clearly suggest otherwise."

Corporations say patent filings shouldn't be used to predict a company's actions.

End. Read more!

Help Wexler Impeach

Do you want impeachment hearings on Cheney and Bush? Of course you do!!! So take action and make your voice heard.

PAZ...and pass it on.

Place the rest of it here.

Read more!